(ZHU DEQUN, Chinese, B. 1920)
Composition No. 143
signed in Chinese; signed 'CHU TEH-CHUN' in Pinyin (lower right)
oil on canvas
145.5 x 113.2 cm. (57 1/8 x 44 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1963
Christie's Hong Kong, 29 November 2009, Lot 1019
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Providence University Art Center, Asian Touring Exhibition of Chu Teh-Chun, Taichung, Taiwan, 2003 (illustrated, p. 12).
The Ueno Royal Museum & Thin Chang Corporation, Solo Exhibition of Chu Teh-Chun, Taipei, Taiwan, 2007 (illustrated, p. 137).
National Museum of History & Thin Chang Corporation, Chu Teh-Chun 88 Retrospective, Taipei, Taiwan, 2008 (illustrated, p. 113).
Paris, France, Galerie Legendre, Chu Teh-Chun, 1963.
Taichung, Taiwan, Providence University Art Center, Asian Touring Exhibition of Chu Teh-Chun, 15 August-9 September 2003.
Taipei, Taiwan, Modern Art Gallery, Touring Exhibition of Chu Teh-Chun, 13-30 September 2003.
Tokyo, Japan, The Ueno Royal Museum, Solo Exhibition of Chu Teh-Chun, 23 June-10 July 2007.
Taipei, Taiwan, National Museum of History, Chu Teh-Chun 88 Retrospective, 19 September-23 November 2008.

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Lot Essay

Abstraction has always existed in conceptual form in the Chinese tradition of painting aesthetics. Even though there might remain visually recognizable elements within a landscape, or even if we can see a tiny figure rowing a boat, the scholar-painters of ancient China were less concerned with the objective scenes that met their eyes than with selecting and rearranging images for their compositions, in order to express an artistic conception whose importance extended beyond those images. This is what Tang Dynasty art historian Zhu Jingxuan meant by the phrase "beyond forms."

Chu Teh-chun studied at the Hangzhou National Academy of Arts, where the free style of teaching by artists such as Lin Fengmian, Wu Dayu, and Pan Tianshou provided inspiration and helped him develop a firm foundation in both modern Western and traditional Chinese painting techniques. By the 1950s, Chu had moved to Paris, at a time when abstraction was sweeping through not only that city but the Western art world as a whole. Chu's own encounter with abstraction struck a chord within him, stirring deep feelings linked with the philosophies and artistic sensibilities of his Chinese heritage. The Tang Dynasty literary critic Si Kong Tu, in his On Twenty-Four Styles of Poetry, discussed his belief that the finest achievements, the most highly integrated and natural forms of poems and lyrics, were ones in which "the central point is found only by going beyond the immediately apparent form." It is precisely here that we find the spirit of abstraction and the source of its deep appeal, and when Chu Teh-chun considered issues of abstraction in his work, it was Si Kong Tu's idea of "the form beyond form" from which he began. Borrowing from the perspectives both as modernist artists and the traditional scholar-painters of China, Chu Teh-chun sublimates and refines the external forms that meet the human eye, transforms them into personal artistic vocabularies by his rich imaginations and artistic sensibilities.

In 1997, Wu Guanzhong made the observation about Chu Teh-chun that even in his early figurative paintings, Chu already had a precise grasp of "the structure within the image, of combinations of lines, arrangements of blocked-out forms, and harmonies of color. After more than half a century of exploration, he has discovered and refined the beauty of abstract essence." Taking a cue from paintings by Nicolas de Stael that appeared in 1956, Chu in the '50s and '60s began a transition toward abstract painting. This transition, despite his use of Western concepts and the oil medium, essentially returned him to the types of expression in traditional Chinese landscape painting, where artists sought the best means of expressing their ideas or concepts. In Chu's work, the rhythmic, dancing harmonies of his brushwork build dimensions of space with a uniquely Eastern ambience. During his time at the Hangzhou Academy, Chu was guided by Pan Tianshou's dictum that artists could "develop the new from the old," and he became deeply familiar with the qualities and techniques of the traditional Chinese ink medium. He absorbed the depth of meaning in the traditional medium, its relationships between real and implied forms and spaces, its poetic aspects, and its spirit of man in union with nature. Of all of China's ancient painters, he most admired the large-scale landscapes of Fan Kuan, Guo Xi, and Li Tang, in particular the vivid presence and power of their depictions of forested mountains, valleys, and rivers. As Chu Teh-chun considered how to move from representative depictions of natural forms to a non-figurative, abstract mode, it was natural that for inspiration he would turn to these masters of the Chinese ink landscape, whose work he had always admired. Composition No. 33 (Lot 1019) and Composition No. 143 (Lot 1018) are composed in vertical rectangles, much like traditional Chinese vertical hanging scrolls, which allows Chu to evoke some of the same sense of open beauty and high, stark cliffs as in those paintings. In Composition No. 143, Chu sets out a screen-like background in vivid reds, against which he applies vigorous, sweeping lines of fresh blue with a broad brush. Washes of ink-black pigments link this upper area with more finely detailed vertical lines, brushed on with short pressure strokes in the bottom of the canvas. The opposition of horizontal and vertical lines produces an intensely rhythmical compositional effect; in his arrangement of space, Chu borrows the distributed perspectives of Chinese ink-wash painting. This produces effects akin to those of Guo Xi's Mountain Village, with its impressions of a windswept mountain peak, surmounted by clouds that slowly seep down into the pines of the forest below.

The structure and abstract beauty of Composition No. 33 are rich in allusions to the lofty spaces of Chinese landscapes, with and their soaring peaks and waterfalls. In a remarkable composition structured around intensely calligraphic lines, Chu Teh-chun puts his full energy into exploring the potentials of Chinese painting, its rhythms and harmonies of line, within the Western oil medium. This 1959 work marks one of Chu's first steps in exploring abstraction. Chu takes his brush, coated with black pigments, and boldly sweeps it across the canvas in both heavy and fine strokes sometimes merging into broad areas of black, in a work whose unified energy combines numerous elements of traditional Chinese art. The deep but flowing blacks of ink paintings join lines that exude the strength and speed of calligrapher Zhang Xu. Chu here draws on a deep familiarity with his own cultural heritage to produce an innovative work, a new kind of abstraction with a distinct Eastern flavor. In Composition No. 33, Chu's visual language finds an echo in the work of Franz Kline, an American abstract expressionist similarly inspired by Eastern influences, though Chu's brushwork has a graceful freedom and emerges with an ease and naturalness that Kline seems hard put to match. The high degree of control in Chu's lines and forms is equaled by his unique sense of color in this work. Chu often managed his picture spaces with deep-toned hues such as dark green, vermilion, chrome yellow, and azure blue, for coloristic effects that vibrate and resound throughout the canvas. In Composition No. 143, Chu's gorgeous, deep contrasts of red and blue transform a grand landscape into an abstract work of virile energy, releasing the powerful visual energy of color itself and combining it with line to form the abstract blocks of the painting. The beauty and structural feel in Composition No. 143 derive solely from the energies inherent in its colors, and like the pure dynamics of the abstract "color fields" in a Rothko painting, it entices the viewer into a space filled with spiritual energy. By melding the brilliance of oil pigments with the national painting traditions of his own background, Chu brings the ink-and-brush style into a new era and reinterprets the magnificent tradition of Chinese landscape painting.

These two early, abstract Chu Teh-chun works put the exceptional mastery of this artist on display as he moves from representational to abstract work. Chu had a commanding ability to extract the essential features of natural forms, and to transform those features into blocks of color, geometrical images, and calligraphy-derived lines. In a direct and pure exposition of the points, lines, and planes hidden within the features of a landscape, he arranged and reshaped the world into a new kind of natural space, a space imbued with a new and deep poetry. The calligraphy-influenced brushwork of this master inhabits a realm that moves between forms and formlessness, and includes both. Through unceasing observation and meditation on the world around him, Chu found the key he needed to understand the differences between the beauty of realism and the beauty of more lyrical presentations. As an inheritor of Wu Dayu's exploratory nature, his works made the barriers of physical time and space disappear as we enter Wu Dayu's realm of "the truth of one instant in the universe." Chu evokes the most timeless aspects of the great works of his culture, and in Composition No. 33 and Composition No. 143, we have outstanding representatives of the rarely seen works from this period of Chu Teh-chun's career. They show us just how, in an ideal transition from the figurative to the abstract, he produced works that embodied the finest aspects of both, making this an important and creative period of transition in his work.

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